Sri Lanka 312 and 14 for 0 (Madushka 8*, Karunaratne 6*) trail Pakistan 461 (Shakeel 208*, Salman 83, Ramesh Mendis 5-136) lead by 135 runs
Sri Lanka’s batters saw out 20 minutes of play at the end, without loss; though the real business will start tomorrow, when an already fractured wicket will likely break down even further. But as for today, it belonged to Shakeel through and through. In fact, such was his dominance that after a point Sri Lanka simply stopped trying to get him out, with much of the afternoon and post-tea sessions resembling a glorified net session as Sri Lanka allowed him to freely turn over the strike to the tailender at the other end, who offered valiant support.
During this period, Shakeel was completely in his element, working singles with ease, never searching for the boundary but graciously accepting any when the opportunities came around. In Agha, he had a like-minded partner at the other end, one who was equally adept at rotating strike and finding the ropes.
Together they tormented Sri Lanka’s bowlers, especially their primary weapon, Prabath Jayasuriya, who racked up 145 runs in his 35 overs – well above his Test career economy rate of 2.93. While Agha utilised the sweep to great effect, Shakeel used his feet, either coming down the track or using the depths of the crease. Neither batter allowed Jayasuriya to settle into the lines and lengths that have devastated other visiting batters. The left-right combo aided them further in wearing down the Lankan bowlers.
But when Agha fell, going for an ill-fated charge against Mendis only to find himself well out his crease and stumped, Shakeel began to show the other side of his game, one characterised by resilience and solidity that Sri Lanka just could not find a way past. He strung together partnerships of 52, 16, 94, and 21 for the final four wickets.
But that’s not to say there weren’t chances – two came by, in fact. The first was when Shakeel was on 93, as he sought to work a length ball from Ramesh, around the corner. But the fielder at backward short leg, who didn’t have to move, spilt a low grab. The ball not sticking in the hand indicated that it was Shakeel’s day after all.
The second was Angelo Mathews grassing a dolly at deep midwicket. If the first was a genuine mistake coaxed out of the batter, this was Shakeel at his most carefree, looking to up the scoring rate with a big slog sweep. He was on 139, with Naseem Shah for company, their partnership worth just 13 at the time. Shakeel would spend a couple of hours, shielding Naseem from the strike and inching Pakistan’s lead forward. Of the pair’s 94-run stand, Naseem scored just six runs.
During that period, it seemed Shakeel and Pakistan would bat for as long as they wished, as the Lankan bowlers wilted in the face of the batters’ endurance. Naseem had an lbw call overturned and was beaten once or twice on the outside edge, but aside from that he was sturdy in defence. Shakeel would bat out the first four deliveries of an over, time and again before turning over the strike on the fifth delivery – no field placement was good enough to contain him.
It was only once Naseem fell, castled by one that was tossed up and dipping from Mendis, that Sri Lanka felt the end was nigh. There were a few lusty blows from the last man Abrar Ahmed – and Shakeel, too, joined in to reach his double ton with a carve through point. Abrar would eventually hole out to Mathews, who completed a good catch running the boundary at long leg.
But by then the pitch had started spitting and Sri Lanka were 149 in the red – at Galle that can be a death sentence. Sri Lanka’s batters will know they have an uphill task ahead of them tomorrow if they’re to save this Test, let alone win it.